Nearing his eightieth year, Saul Bellow can look back at his fifteen or so novels with a deep sense of a job well done. No other American writer of the later twentieth century will leave behind a more distinguished and inspiring oeuvre. To make such claims for Bellow in the mid-1990’s may strike contemporary readers as somewhat exaggerated. Later novellas such as A Theft (1989) and The Bellarosa Connection (1989) struck many readers as representative of a decline in inventiveness that was already apparent in More Die of Heartbreak, Bellow’s last true novel, published in 1987. In addition, his harshly comic treatment of women in his fiction—from Made-leine and Ramona in Herzog (1964) to Renata inHumboldt’s Gift (1975) and beyond—was bound to strike feminist readers, whose perspective has dominated literary criticism in the late twentieth century, as objectionable. In a similar vein, Bellow’s lack of interest in multicultural literary values that denigrate the classics of the past has not endeared him to ethnically and racially centered critics.
Those who believe, however, that Saul Bellow will reemerge as one of the true giants of twentieth century literature when trendy ideologies pass from the scene will find support for their convictions in ideas and feelings that Bellow underscores in his nonfiction. The main subtitle of It All Adds Up is From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. Bellow means to contextualize different experiences, people, and places in his own mnemonic life. The range of his memory serves as a guide to what a truly engaged human being may call his or her life—in the end no richer than what is remembered, no matter how dimly. The “future” is “uncertain” because the “past” is “dim.” This is unavoidable, but the challenge it represents is precisely what moves Bellow to make the effort to remember, both at the time he wrote the various pieces collected here and now at the time of their final stringing on a common thread. That thread is Bellow’s fascination and love for “the mysteries of our common human nature.” On the spine of this book, there is a space between “Adds” and “Up”—a pause that has the effect of stressing the second word and bringing out its two meanings: summation and hope.
Chicago is Bellow’s Jerusalem, and this is so despite the moving tribute to the true Jerusalem in his acclaimed travel book To Jerusalem and Back (1976). In that book, he reflected in a disinterested way on the passion and tragedy of the holy city, past and present. Bellow cannot be disinterested or objective, however, when it comes to Chicago. He found his voice as a novelist in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), and that novel not only embodies the Chicago of Bellow’s youth but also captures the strange way in which the ugliness, smells, dirt, crowded tenements, and, all in all, the quintessential urbanness (not urbanity) of this great American city inspired Bellow to define himself as an artist. The religion of Bellow’s art has its shrine in Chicago.
In a short piece on Chicago originally written for Life magazine in October, 1983, Bellow stands at the site of his childhood home on Le Moyne Street. There is only a vacant lot and not a single physical reminder of the past. Chicago’s “transformations”...
(The entire section is 1384 words.)